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Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha

Wisconsin Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca will serve a fourth term in the role, despite overseeing a trickle of lost Democratic seats since 2010.

No Democrats challenged the veteran lawmaker, but Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee, objected to electing him by unanimous consent, requiring lawmakers to cast their votes on a secret ballot. 

"I don't think we should have gone with the establishment status quo again," Brostoff said after the vote.

Barca was first chosen to lead Assembly Democrats in 2011, following the conservative wave that ushered in Gov. Scott Walker and a strong Republican majority in both legislative chambers. 

The 2016 election left legislative Democrats with fewer members than they had even during the battle over Walker's signature Act 10 legislation in 2011. State Democrats on Nov. 8 failed to pick up seats they were expected to win and lost seats they were expected to hold onto.

In the Assembly, incumbent Democrat Chris Danou, of Trempealeau, lost unexpectedly to Republican Treig Pronschinske, mayor of Mondovi. Republicans now hold a 64-35 majority in the Assembly, the largest edge they have had since 1957. 

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, who served as assistant minority leader last session, acknowledged Democrats have "significant challenges ahead" as she nominated Barca to lead the caucus. 

"I truly believe that Peter is a leader that will guide us through, probably some of our most difficult times. Peter believes in every single one of us," Shankland told her colleagues. 

Shankland said Barca will offer the "positivity and optimism" Democrats need after a string of defeats up and down the ballot. 

"I truly believe that he’s the right person to help our state heal," she said.

Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, who challenged Barca for the position in the last legislative session, said the timing was not right for him to run again this year. Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, another name that was floated, also cited timing as a reason not to pursue a bid this year.

"We didn't elect a leader, we elected a designated driver," said one Democratic lawmaker of Barca running unopposed for the post. "No one wanted the responsibility." 

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Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, will succeed Shankland as assistant minority leader. She acknowledged it's "clear" Democrats need "a new approach moving forward." 

But she struck an optimistic tone as she promised "better times ahead."

"Obviously this was a gut wrenching and just a shocking election," Barca said. "I thought there would be a Trump wave, I just thought it would go in the opposite direction."

Democrats have a "serious challenge" to try to understand why pundits and polls failed to predict a Trump victory, Barca said.

"If working-class people are not clear that their lot in life is better cast with Democrats than Republicans … we have some very serious reanalysis, some in-depth discussion, some grassroots efforts to try to explore why that could possibly be the case," Barca said.

Trump found the most success in Wisconsin's rural counties, which President Barack Obama carried in past elections.

"We need to learn to speak the language of the people that in years past have voted for us, but in years recent have not, for whatever reason," said Rep. Steve Doyle, D-Onalaska, who was elected caucus vice-chair.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.